What do you see when you look at the night sky?
Is it simply a random jumble of dots, balls of gas billions of light years away, or a never ending void of wonder filled with beauty beyond description? Whatever it is you see this series of blogs will hopefully inspire you to get out there and crane your neck on clear nights.
I have had a fascination with stars for as long as I can remember and even growing up in the light polluted south east of England I still spent many a clear night in my garden starring in amazement at the seemingly endless lights above. I will not profess to have learned much from this in my early years apart from that I simply loved the beauty of them and marvelled at the sizes and time scales involved.
Starting to Star gaze:
So what do you actually need to start watching stars? Well there is very little that you do need in order to get started, but a few essentials help. The most important thing is to find the darkest location near to you, the very least with no direct lights present. Finding somewhere near to your home is good to start with as it makes it less of a chore to go out for an hour or so. Once your enthusiasm grows you may be will to travel some distance for good locations.
After finding a suitable spot a few basic pieces of equipment make life that bit more comfortable. A good head torch (ideally with a red light mode) enables you to see where you are going, read from guild books and make notes without destroying your night vision (more to follow on this). Second on your list should be plenty of warm clothing as you will be spending much of your time standing still and it’s important to keep warm if you are going to stay out for prolonged periods.
As previously mentioned a small field note book is a useful companion as it helps you start recording what it is you’ve seen, the new water proof pads that are now available stop your notes becoming spoiled in the future if its wet. To begin with this might simply be recording the times you are out or any particularly bright stars you have seen, even if you aren’t able to identify them yet.
Recording what you have observed is a good way of starting to familiarise yourself with the stars through comparisons to charts when you get home. An example of this could be you noting some stars that look like a giant sauce pan. When you get home and get the books out you will see that this was likely Ursa Major or otherwise referred to as The Plough. If you continue to do this you will build up an internal map of the major constellations allowing for further exploration.
When heading out with the intention of observing the night sky it is important to maintain as good as night vision as possible. There are several things you can do to increase your ability to see without white light. Firstly most people can see a surprising amount without the aid of any light and so you should allow yourself to develop this. Obviously there are risks of trip hazards so care should be taken.
The first thing to absolutely avoid is the use of white light from your head torch or any other source. Pigments in the makeup of the eye are very sensitive to the light spectrum and are easily bleached when exposed and can take up to 30 minutes to recover. These pigments are less sensitive to the shorter wave lengths of red light and therefore this has less impact on your ability to see. Even with red light it is best to use it only when necessary to minimise its effect. A trick to assist this is learning to take notes in the dark and then copying them over when back home.
Guild books are another good tool, especially ones that are portable, as it means you can familiarise yourself with major constellations before going out while having the ability to double check unfamiliar stars when in the field.
Once you have started to find your way around the night sky with a degree of confidence it may start to become worth your while investing in a suitable pair of binoculars. For the purpose of star gazing these do not have to be the pair with the highest magnification you can afford. Binoculars with a 7-10 X magnification should be sufficient as they don’t minimise the field of vision by too much. The other aspect of the binoculars you need to consider is the size of the Aperture (diameter of the main lens) a general rule of thumb is that the wider the aperture the greater amount of light that is allowed in.
The crowning glory for those suitably enthused by peering into the depths of space is the purchase of a telescope. There is a huge range of these out on the market, both assembled and those that allow you to build one to your own specifications. As with any sort of equipment it is worth getting as much advise as possible before you fork out the money, also make sure it really is practical for you to invest in one as a lot can been seen through a decent pair of bins!
So I hope this introductory article has adequately inspired you to get out there and strain your neck on a cold clear night, or at the very least stirred the faintest interest as you walk home from the pub! Happy gazing and I’ll be back soon with more info on stars, planets and all manner of wonders over the coming months.
DANNY HODGSON- Apprentice Instructor
The Night Sky 311